bitter sanity

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Thursday, April 17, 2003

[posted by jaed at 12:02 PM]
A meme is born:
The next conspiracy theory will be that the US looted the museum. It's already starting.

Consider this quote from the Times:
The British view is that the sight of local youths dismantling the offices and barracks of a regime they used to fear shows they have confidence that Saddam Hussain's henchmen will not be returning to these towns in southern Iraq.

One senior British officer said: "We believe this sends a powerful message that the old guard is truly finished."
I can see already how this is going to be spun:
  1. British officer, nowhere near Baghdad, notes that when people see government offices being looted, they feel like Saddam really is gone. (Simple common sense, it seems to me.)

  2. This will turn into "British encouraged looting in Basra." This despite the fact that the quote says no such thing - it's an observation about the response of people to looting already going on.

  3. Almost instantaneously, this will become "Americans encouraged looting in Baghdad." This despite the fact that Baghdad and Basra are hundreds of miles apart and the quoted officer isn't American. Only stage 3 and we're already completely out of sight of the starting point, but we're just getting started.

  4. This change will be followed by "It was Bush's cynical and evil policy to encourage looting."

  5. At some point, this will shift further, to "The US decided beforehand that the museum in Baghdad should be looted." This will be mentioned casually, as undisputed fact, on innumerable blog comment sections.

  6. Finally, people will start talking about "The US looting of cultural treasures in the Baghdad Museum." At first, this will only be a loose way of referring to the previous - already tinfoil-tinged - accusation, but inevitably, some people will inadvertantly or deliberately use it literally.

  7. And finally will come the accusation that the US's deliberately looting the museum is a war crime. (This will be only one of several dubious entries in an itemized list, but it will again be stated as fact.)
The UN is already at stage 2. I figure that most of the mainstream media will reach stage 3, with some weasel words. ("Disturbing charges have surfaced that....") The NYT editorial page - possibly Krugman, judging by what he's been writing lately - will go to stage 4. The more conspiracy-minded bloggers will hit stage 5, though there will be some who suggest that this hasn't, after all, been proven - just probable. The European press, the Arab press, and the Guardian, will go to stage 6. (The Mirror will do the same, but phrase it more vociferously than I have above.) Stage 7 will, one hopes, be reserved for Ramsey Clark and Robert "My name is a verb" Fisk.

You read it here first.

And why am I so confident, you ask? John Quiggin, a blogger not known for his tinfoil hat collection, has already gone to Stage 4, and I'm already seeing his accusation linked widely in comment sections:
When we come to allocate the responsibility for the destruction of archeological treasures and so on, it will be important to recall that this was the product of deliberate policy, not mere neglect.
This is only the beginning.

Update: Reader Rich Schultz writes to point out this Pacifica radio story (scroll down to "Did US Antiquities Dealers..."):
Amy Goodman from "Democracy Now" has already reached stage five [...] insinuating that a group of American antiquarians and graverobbers have been influencing the Bush administration to make it easier for them to buy stolen goods.
Erik of Bite the Wax Tadpole spots a summary of Stage 7 thinking at The Aardvark Speaks:
The suspicion that US forces initiated the looting has in the meantime popped up in several places. The Independent has an article on artefacts stolen 'on order'. The Glasgow Herald reports on how the pressure group of antiquities collectors and arts lawyers lobbied the Bush administration, and Bryan Pfaffenberger (of the University of Virginia) has more about this rather influential group. Even CNN reports that the museum lootings were probably carried out by by art and cultural professionals of non-Iraqi origin.
(See the article for several links.)

John Quiggin also writes to suggest:
If you'll read the full text of the report I linked, you'll find that it supports all of the steps from 1 to 4.
However, I disagree. A careful reading of the article does not show that the British encouraged looting, only that unnamed "UN officials" (who presumably are not on site, and have no personal knowledge of it) have made the accusation. This is why I assigned the UN to Stage 2; it's not evidence that the British encouraged looting, unless you take the word of an unnamed UN official on background, as filtered through a reporter, as gospel. As for Stages 3 and 4, the article does not support them: it doesn't mention Baghdad (as John notes, this was published before US troops were in Baghdad) nor make any claims about policy.

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